A figure portrait 人物肖像

来源:China Today
2023-09-27 09:00:00


Vison is the most straightforward sense through which humankind learns about the world. In a greater sense it is how we see the world that decides how we perceive it. To the Chinese, whose writing is highly pictographic, 眼光 (yǎn guāng), sight, and 视角 (shì jiǎo), angle of view, are particularly important.


目 (mù), the character for eye, resembles a vertical eye, and is a component of many characters to do with the eyes or seeing, such as 睹 (dǔ), see, 看 (kàn), look, and 盯 (dīng), stare. The meaning differs when the character 眼 (yǎn), eye, is paired with others. For instance 眼神 (yǎn shén) is the way one looks; 眼力 (yǎn lì) is more about how well one sees. Eyes reveal our thoughts and emotions, hence the Chinese expressions 目瞪口呆 (mù dèng kǒu dāi), flabbergasted, and 怒目 (nù mù), angry glare or 笑眼 (xiào yǎn), smiling eyes.


Touch is also an important sense, and an action primarily made with the 手 (shǒu), hand. A mutation of this character is hence often used as a part of others related to the hand, like 指 (zhǐ), point. As we use the hand for many actions, the word is often a metaphor for either dexterity or its opposite. For instance, being good at something is 很拿手 (hěn ná shǒu), and being clumsy is 笨手笨脚 (bèn shǒu bèn jiǎo). The top leader of an organization is colloquially called 一把手 (yī bǎ shǒu), or No.1 hand. 手忙脚乱 (shǒu máng jiǎo luàn) busy hands and tangled feet, means a state of haste and confusion.


Words for inner organs are also used in expressions for emotions, especially 心 (xīn), heart. 心肝 (xīn gān) is the Chinese equivalent of "darling." A person described as having 小心眼儿 (xiǎo xīn yǎnr), a narrow heart, is petty and calculating. To be fully committed to a cause is 一心一意 (yī xīn yī yì). A friend to whom you can open your heart is a 知心 (zhī xīn) bosom friend. A philanderer has a "flowery heart" 花心 (huā xīn) and a faithful lover is 痴心 (chī xīn).


It is interesting that in Chinese language, guts and tummy also have a part to play in human feelings. 发自肺腑 (fā zì fèi fǔ), out of the lungs, is close in meaning to "from the bottom of one’s heart"; and if a person has 一肚子话 (yī dù zi huà), a belly of words, or 一肚子火 (yī dù zi huǒ), a belly of anger, they obviously either have a lot to say or are furious. When one is consumed with remorse, he or she could come to the point where 肠子都悔青了 (cháng zi dōu huǐ qīng le), their "intestines turn green." People with strong nerves have 大胆 (dà dǎn), big gallbladders.


口 (kǒu), mouth, is also highly descriptive. The mouth being the entrance to the human body, in many circumstances the word means the way in or out of a place, such as 入口 (rù kǒu), entry, and 出口 (chū kǒu), exit. An exception is 人口 (rén kǒu), population.


When a group of people are speaking at the same time, the scene is 七嘴八舌 (qī zuǐ bā shé), literally seven mouths and eight tongues. If one keeps his/her lips stiff 嘴硬 (zuǐ yìng), he or she refuses to acknowledge his/her fault. A smooth-tongued person is one with 油嘴滑舌 (yóu zuǐ huá shé), greasy lips and slithery tongue.


Our linguistic figure portrait would of course be incomplete without 头 (tóu), head, and 脸 (liǎn), face. 首 (shǒu) is a synonym of 头. Both can imply the start or sublime level of some circumstances, such as 开头 (kāi tóu), beginning, 首脑 (shǒu nǎo), head (of government or an organization) and 头等舱 (tóu děng cāng), first-class cabin.


A synonym of 脸 (liǎn) is 面 (miàn), which we see has a 目 (mù) at the center. Maintaining a "good face" is a big issue in Chinese culture that often perplexes foreigners. There is a subtle difference in the meaning of 面色 (miàn sè), complexion, and 脸色 (liǎn sè), facial expression. The former reflects one’s health condition, the latter a person’s humor.


It is a conventional wisdom in China to monitor other people’s facial expressions during a conversation to avoid offending them. It is also etiquette to 顾脸面 (gù liǎn miàn), take care of one’s face. One who feels humiliated 丢面子 (diū miàn zi), loses face, or 没面子 (méi miàn zi), has no face. If one is flattered or not challenged in public, he/she is given face 给面子 (gěi miàn zi).


My figure portrait is now complete.


Source: China Today